David Finn: An Icon Who Made PR an Art Form

Many versions of 'PR lost a mensch' were uttered today as news circulated that PR icon David Finn passed yesterday (Oct. 18), just months after celebrating his 100th birthday August 30.

In short, Finn’s contributions to PR are daunting. A member of the PRNEWS Hall of Fame, he co-founded Ruder Finn in 1948 in a rented linen closet at the Lombardy Hotel. Finn counseled three presidential administrations and his foresight on the importance of ethics in PR and corporate purpose helped shape the industry’s appreciation for authentic leadership and stakeholder capitalism. Today Ruder Finn is one of the largest independently owned, global communication and creative agencies.

To say David Finn was an unusual person, as his daughter and Ruder Finn CEO Kathy Bloomgarden did yesterday in a note to staff, is an understatement. In addition to his fame in PR, Finn also was a top-flight photographer and art historian, specializing in sculpture. He traveled the globe photographing ancient works and writing 100 books about sculpture and art, Bloomgarden said.

Much More Than a Hobby

Many PR pros pursue art as a hobby. David Finn, though, was not a dilettante. Bloomgarden recalls her father climbing a ladder to the Sistine Chapel’s magnificent ceiling to advise the Vatican on restoring Michelangelo’s masterpiece. President Bill Clinton appointed Finn to the Advisory Council for the National Endowment for the Humanities.

It’s safe to say if you wanted someone to expound on whether or not PR is more art than science, David Finn was your man.

In fact, though, David Finn was responsible for blurring the line between PR and art in more ways than one. Shelley Spector, president, Spector Corporate Communications and founder and director of the Museum of Public Relations, recalls sitting across from Finn in the late 1980s. He was her first boss in PR.

Sculpture and Ideas

Finn loved ideas and enjoyed generating them. Periodically he would call Spector and other staff to his office to brainstorm about a campaign or a new theme for a business presentation, she says. Thing is, these were sculpture sessions.

“It would be considered an ordinary meeting except for one important thing: we would both be constructing little sculptures with colored paper clips,” Spector says. Owing to his affinity for art, Finn’s invitation to ‘sculpt’ with him, albeit with colored paper clips, was a big deal.

This was not merely Finn’s way of occupying his and his employees’ hands, though. Spector says Finn knew exactly what he was doing with the paper clip ideation sessions.

“He was inspiring you to unleash your creativity, all the while, exchanging ideas about a campaign,” Spector says. “I think David used this playful tactic with many hundreds of employees,” she adds.

A Career Launcher

And it worked. “He made you feel comfortable.  I remember warmth and always a smile,” Spector says. This artistic-based tactic helped careers blossom. “Just as much as he loved ideas, [Finn] treasured the process of generating them, and making you feel good about them,” Spector says. How good? “Good enough to confidently present them to a boardroom full of prospects.”

Finn was a lifelong learner, Bloomgarden recalled yesterday. She remembers her father convincing a friend, who was an Italian professor at Columbia, to hold weekly sessions with him reading and talking about Dante’s Inferno. They read Dante in Italian. Finn felt reading it in English wasn’t enough.

After 9/11 he roamed the streets of NY taking photos. Eventually the collection was published. Always an optimist who believed time was elastic, Finn approached the novelist E.L. Doctorow cold, asking him to provide captions for the book. Doctorow responded immediately. Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, a friend of Finn’s, provided the the foreword.

Finn's legacy lives on with his children, associates and many art books. But more than a few communicators will remember his paperclip sculptures.

Seth Arenstein is editor of PRNEWS and Crisis Insider. Follow him: @skarenstein